Question: Ukraine has just held parliamentary elections. Does Moscow recognise them?
Sergey Lavrov: The elections are being monitored by observers, including OSCE observers, and there are Russian representatives among them. This time, Russia’s Federal Assembly did not send a separate observer team to the elections, so we will wait for the conclusions of the international OSCE team.
The elections seem to be valid, though not in every part of Ukraine. I think Russia will recognise their results as it is critically important for Ukraine to obtain, at long last, a leadership that will not engage in petty infighting and drag the country from east to west and back again, but one that will address real Ukrainian problems. Ukraine needs a government that will think how the nation should regain unity. It needs a government to guarantee an equal status to all Ukrainian citizens irrespective of the language they speak and political convictions they have. No one should be victimised on political and other grounds, as has been the case until recently.
Question: Considering the latest updates, the Verkhovna Rada will be a multi-party house as several political blocs have made it to parliament, including the Radical Party of Oleg Lyashko. You warned in Norway how dangerous ultranationalism is for Europe. How would you explain that bloc’s success?
Sergey Lavrov: I wouldn’t say it’s such a big success. The general wording is that the party has crossed the minimum eligibility threshold, and so did another radical party, Oleg Tyagnybok’s Svoboda. If I am not mistaken, each of them rallied barely over 6% of the vote. Many had expected Lyashko’s party to come in second, but the reality did not turn out as the radical and ultranationalist groups had planned. However, the very fact that they have made it into the Rada is rather alarming.
Allow me to remind you that, after the December 2012 elections, the European Union protested against Tyagnybok’s party getting seats and correctly described it as ultranationalist. In fact, its founding documents still contain principles declared by Ukrainian nationalists in late July 1941, shortly after the Great Patriotic War broke out. The Svoboda Party platform confirms adherence to the principles laid out in the declaration which expressed solidarity with Hitler’s New Order in Europe. This is very indicative. When Svoboda won parliament seats in 2012, Brussels urged other political forces to refrain from cooperating with that party due to its ultranationalist ideology.
At the same time, European countries supported the coup in Kiev even though it was staged by a coalition that included Oleg Tyagnybok’s party. We were greatly concerned, anticipating that such attitude would help radical parties win more votes than they actually did. I believe this shows Ukrainian people’s wisdom, their ability to see through the real motives of Oleg Lyashko and the like.
Question: Will this parliament be effective and viable? Will Russia have someone there to negotiate and cooperate with? This parliament will define the new government.
Sergey Lavrov: I am confident that we will have partners to negotiate with in the Verkhovna Rada and in the Ukrainian government. I am referring to the Petr Poroshenko Bloc, which is bound to become the leading party in the new parliament, and he is Russia’s and President Vladimir Putin’s partner in negotiating the Minsk peace agreements between the Ukrainian government and the self-defence forces in Lugansk and Donetsk, reached with a significant contribution from Russia and the OSCE.
Petr Poroshenko has repeatedly declared his commitments to these agreements, also at the 17 October meeting with Vladimir Putin in Milan and at meetings in broader format (the so-called Normandy format). I believe the new Ukrainian government – which is bound to be a coalition government – will nevertheless be comprised of ministers who are devoted to the president’s policy of peace, national accord and reconciliation in Ukraine. At least Poroshenko, in his contacts with Putin, firmly states that he will not allow a relapse into war. This is what matters most now.
However, the outgoing Ukrainian government did not always support this policy, let alone Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s and Alexander Turchynov’s resignation from the Batkivshchyna party to create the Popular Front. While serving as prime minister and the Verkhovna Rada speaker, respectively, prior to the elections, they occasionally questioned Poroshenko’s steps, including his efforts to implement the Minsk agreements and to find a compromise on the gas issue. They said Russia would never agree to a compromise with Ukraine on gas. Yatsenyuk recently said that Moscow is determined to make Ukraine freeze, which is an outrageous statement for a responsible politician to make.
When President Poroshenko pushed through the Rada and signed a law granting limited self-rule status to certain territories controlled by self-defence forces (as part of fulfilling the Minsk agreements), Interior Minister Arsen Avakov publicly said he would not observe this law. So I hope that one of the important positive results of the parliamentary vote would be a government of like-minded individuals supporting President Poroshenko’s policy.
Question: Is there reason to hope that, once the new Verkhovna Rada is seated and the new Ukrainian government formed, agreements will be fulfilled more effectively and issues resolved more quickly with respect to the Minsk agreements, the status of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, and gas supplies?
Sergey Lavrov: We can certainly hope. In fact this is what we are doing – we hope our partners will take a reasonable, pragmatic and non-aggressive approach.
Question: You said that Petr Poroshenko is a partner and someone Russia can talk to. Are there similar people in Donbass – people with whom Russia could maintain a dialogue?
Sergey Lavrov: Some government bodies have already emerged there spontaneously. Not only have they been recognised as the leadership of the self-proclaimed republics – they have also become partners to the Minsk agreements and are taking part in the Contact Group alongside Kiev officials, enjoying the support of both Russia and the OSCE. Their representatives, Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky, have signed a number of the Group’s documents, and the Minsk agreements of 5 and 19 September. The elections to be held in the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics will be very important in terms of legitimising these authorities.
Question: Will Moscow recognise the results of these elections?
Sergey Lavrov: We believe this is one of the most important aspects of the Minsk agreements. We expect the elections to proceed as planned, and we will certainly recognise the results. We also hope that the results will be the freely expressed will of the people, without any outside interference undermining that.
Question: How does Russia see the two republics? Are they a special zone, a part of Ukraine with special status? How does Russia recognise these republics?
Sergey Lavrov: These are areas whose populations categorically refused to accept the military coup and its aftermath, and who rejected the Bandera ideology and the Ukrainian National Assembly – Ukrainian People's Self-Defence policy, which the triumphant Maidan leaders tried to impose on the entire country. They have their own perspective on the historical process which has shaped modern Ukraine. I am confident that if the Kiev authorities who perpetrated the coup had not used force, had respected the settlement agreement signed on 21 February by Vladimir Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Oleg Tyagnybok with Viktor Yanukovych, the crisis in Ukraine would never have escalated to this point.
They should have observed the agreement, the first point of which stipulates the formation of a national unity government, which was to draft a new version of the constitution and hold presidential and parliamentary elections based on that constitution before yearend. It provided a clear and logical sequence: reconciliation, the formation of a national unity government for the sole purpose of reforming the constitution, followed by elections. Instead, the agreement was violated, and those who came to power never even mentioned national unity again. They ran to the Maidan where they boldly announced that President Yanukovych had been overthrown and a government of “winners” had been formed. Their immediate actions showed that they viewed those living in southeastern Ukraine as “losers”.
That’s when the atrocities began. People were burnt alive, political opponents were arrested and thrown into jail without any investigation or trial, as Russian President Vladimir Putin noted at the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi on 23 October. So people decided to defend themselves and to escape the unacceptable consequences of the coup. So they took up arms and tried to defend their homes.
As we have said repeatedly, we respected the results of the referendums in Donetsk and Lugansk, and urged them to realise this expression of the people’s will through dialogue with Kiev. We have consistently called for national dialogue between all the Ukrainian regions and political forces at every level, including international. The new Ukrainian government made a commitment to start a dialogue in the Geneva statement with the United States, European Union and Russia, signed in April 2014. But this was never acted on. The need for national dialogue was reaffirmed in the Minsk agreements. This new commitment was signed by a representative of Ukrainian President Petr Poroshenko and opposition leaders. We insist that this process begin as soon as possible.
Question: There have been numerous reports about violations of the Minsk agreements by Kiev. Do you think the conflict in southeastern Ukraine will escalate after the parliamentary election of 26 October and the planned 2 November election in the self-proclaimed republics, or are there grounds to believe that Kiev will begin to honour the agreements signed in Minsk?
Sergey Lavrov: There have been ceasefire violations on both sides. President Putin spoke about this in his address at the Valdai Club forum. This is happening largely because the Ukrainian armed forces and the self-defence forces cannot finalise the disengagement line from which heavy weaponry must be withdrawn. There are coordinated decisions, but the line has not been marked yet. Work is underway in the region to do this with Russia’s assistance, which the self-defence forces have requested. We hope to be able to finally coordinate it within two or three days. This will make it possible for the sides to pull back their heavy weaponry, which will be a crucial factor for easing tensions and preventing clashes. As it is, the conflicting sides are deployed too close to each other in some places, which explains the breakdowns. However, we are completing the work of marking the disengagement line.
Question: Public organisations and observers have provided evidence that peaceful civilians have been killed by both sides during the escalation of conflict in Ukraine. Do you think an international tribunal should be created to call to account those who permitted the death of thousands in southeast Ukraine? It has been proposed to establish an international Eurasian tribunal. Is this possible?
Sergey Lavrov: There is documentary evidence confirmed by information of the OSCE monitoring mission and UN human rights law and international humanitarian law agencies, according to which about 4,000 people have died and tens of thousands have been wounded in the conflict area. There are also missing persons and the mass graves, which have been found recently. The bodies are being identified.
A recent report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has confirmed that some actions by the Ukrainian armed forces can be deemed war crimes. Unlike its previous documents, this report does not say that threats to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity warrant the proportionate use of military force for regaining control of the national territory. The latest report doesn’t mention this possibility. International observers have likely seen that it is unacceptable to justify what the National Guard units and the battalions – which were created by Ukrainian oligarchs and were officially accountable to the Interior Ministry but were in fact their own masters – have done in violation of the internationally accepted rules of war.
I firmly believe that national reconciliation, including in Ukraine, is a process that should include the restoration of justice and punishment of the guilty parties.
What judicial agency could do this? Ukraine is not a party to the Statute of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and so an ICC prosecutor cannot initiate an investigation. This is not done. The ICC agencies can only initiate this investigation in a country that is a party to the Rome Statute. As it is, Ukraine can refer the situation in its territory to the Court, which it has done, but only regarding the February events on Independence Square. For some reason, the Kiev government is unwilling to refer the Odessa massacre, or the tragedy in Mariupol, or other similar crimes, to international organisations. Regarding the February events on Maidan, Ukraine has appealed to the ICC and the Council of Europe, which suggested immediately after the Odessa massacre that its experts also investigate it. Ukrainian authorities initially agreed, but the conditions they advanced will prevent international experts from playing a comprehensive role in the investigation of that crime. What various commissions in Ukraine have done, including in investigating the death of about a hundred people who were burned alive in the Trade Unions building in Odessa, suggests the disturbing idea that they are attempting to cover up the crime.
There is numerous evidence that visitors were allowed in the Trade Unions building in Odessa a day and a half after the tragedy. Of course, any evidence that could be found there has been trampled down, which ruled out any possibility of a professional investigation. A commission was later established, and the names of officials who held high ranks at the time of the tragedy were rubbed out of the first version of its report. Commission members filed their resignation one after another, because they were denied access to information. Valentin Nalivaichenko, Andrei Paruby (who did not hold an official position at the time) and Arsen Avakov did not heed the summons from that commission.
As for Eurasian judicial agencies, first, Ukraine is not a member of any Eurasian integration projects, and second, the courts that exist in this integration space deal primarily with commercial cases. We have no joint criminal courts. There may come a time when we will accept the need to establish them, but not yet. As I said, Ukraine is not involved in these processes. It is only a member of the CIS, which does not have a criminal court.
However, Russian legislation stipulates the possibility to investigate crimes committed in the territory of foreign countries if these crimes directly affect the interests of Russia and Russian citizens, because many Russian citizens, primarily journalists, have been affected by the arbitrary actions of the Ukrainian military, and journalists from several Russian media outlets, including Life News, were taken prisoner in Ukraine. Some of their less fortunate colleagues have died there. Russia’s Investigative Committee has initiated an investigation into these cases. We will continue using all means available to ensure that justice is served. People can also take their cases to the European Court of Human Rights, even though the court’s judges took politically motivated decisions in a number of high-profile cases. However, this court is equipped to establish the truth if the investigation is conducted objectively.
Question: Recently, many European diplomats have used out-of-context quotes from private conversations with President Putin and Russian officials to portray Russian officials in unflattering light. Is this a new kind of European diplomacy devoid of ethics, or a deliberate attack on Russia?
Sergey Lavrov: I have no doubt that the current surge in anti-Russian passions and emotions in Western public opinion is well coordinated. Was there any malice in the fact that certain Western colleagues began to interpret, or rather distort, confidential conversations, or whether someone decided to get ahead of events or demonstrate their full loyalty to an ongoing campaign in Europe that was largely inspired by their overseas allies?
The incident with former Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski doesn’t even require comment. The Poles, including former Prime Minister Donald Tusk, whom Sikorski accused of conducting secret talks with President Putin, have disavowed it. Before that, there was the episode involving outgoing head of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso, who gave his own interpretation of President Putin’s statements, made during meetings and telephone conversations with the President, to large numbers of representatives of the EU member states. There were other instances, including some that involved me – for example, during the war in the Caucasus when Saakashvili invaded South Ossetia, and our British colleagues tried to misrepresent my words. In politics, this happens all the time. Even without the crisis in Ukraine, no one is ever immune from a partner unethically blabbing or misinterpreting what was said.
I won’t dwell on this topic for too long. Let me just say that we seem to have found the right antidote. Whenever a leak occurs, we immediately offer to publish the full text of the conversation, as was the case with Mr Barroso and several others. We have nothing to hide. True, some things are confidential, but, for our part, that never applies to topics that constitute interference in the internal affairs of another nation. So, we take a philosophical approach to the issue.
Question: You said that the Ukraine crisis is the culmination of Western countries’ policies towards Russia. Does this mean that the situation was pre-planned and things were supposed to turn out that way? Were we ready for this turn of events? Were we preparing our response?
Sergey Lavrov: President Putin has discussed this issue in great detail on many occasions, including during the recent meeting with Valdai Club members. It all started after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Warsaw Pact and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, when our Western partners missed a historic chance to create truly equal and indivisible security in Europe and a common humanitarian and economic space. Back then, if they had embarked on a path of transforming the OSCE into a real organisation with its own charter and legally binding security assurances for all members, things could have turned out differently. If, back then, the economic component of the OSCE had been used to harmonise cooperation in this area, and things were done, such as ensuring freedom of movement for all OSCE member countries, which was agreed back in 1975 during the signing of the Helsinki Accords, we would now be living in a completely different Europe and world.
Instead, the OSCE remained a loose structure without a charter or clear rules for many of its institutions. On the contrary, institutions without consistent internal rules have been transformed by the words and deeds of our Western partners into something like the gold standard. For example, the renowned Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which engages in election monitoring among other things, has many issues to deal with, including the elimination of statelessness in Latvia and Estonia. When we proposed looking into what these activities are based on, the United States and some European countries strongly objected. For example, we wanted to agree the criteria for forming an election monitoring team. Clearly, the number of observers must be based on the size of the territory, the number of electoral districts, population, etc. In this case, one would understand and monitor the logic, as well as have an explanation for why they refused to send to Russia 300 observers and wanted instead to send 500 (we invited 300), but sent 10 or 15 observers to the United States who were kicked out of most polling stations on the pretext that they didn’t know anything about the OSCE and were told to leave before they get arrested.
These absurdities are clear to everyone. And yet, our Western colleagues refuse to rectify the situation and agree clear rules. For example, any self-proclaimed non-governmental organisation (including ones that are openly extremist and do not hide it – it is expressly stated in their applications) can come in off the street and participate in the annual OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting.
The UN has a rule: if an NGO wants to participate in a discussion, it must obtain a status. Its mandate, application, and charter-defined mission are discussed and a decision is taken that allows this NGO to attend and speak on matters that fall within its competence. There are thousands of such organisations already and it’s fine with everyone, no one is put out, because everyone understands that this is important, including in terms of commitment to the agenda and security.
For some reason, our Western partners categorically refuse to adopt the same rules in the OSCE. Anyone off the street is accepted as a civil society partner. There are many such examples. Instead of making the OSCE a regular organisation that truly would be a security organisation, ensuring security for everyone, our Western colleagues opted for mindless and boundless expansion of NATO, telling us bluntly that legal security guarantees are reserved for members of the North Atlantic Alliance.
Our proposal to conclude a European security treaty, which would legally ensure security and provide the appropriate guarantees to all the countries of NATO and the CSTO which remain militarily and politically neutral was rejected, as was later rejected our proposal to begin to develop the concept for a common economic and humanitarian space, removing travel barriers, and harmonising the integration processes in the EU and the former Soviet Union. All this was brushed aside. Instead, they embarked on a course where “our Western European well-being and security will be provided by NATO and the EU; it’s in our interest to add more geopolitical space and not to cooperate with Russia as equal partners.” That was the important part: the refusal to cooperate with us on an equal footing. They were not going to cooperate on an equal footing with anyone else either, as demonstrated by the Eastern Partnership programme, which was drafted in Brussels. It was a non-negotiable and condescending offer extended to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus.
The programme included certain useful things that got our neighbours’ attention. Money was offered to carry out institutional reforms and streamline economic and law enforcement agencies. We were willing to participate in some of these projects where Russia, the EU and the country concerned would work together to create at least some “added value.” The EU showed little interest, and continued to use the Eastern Partnership to bring these six countries as close to European standards as possible while ignoring Russia’s interests.
Then, during Ukraine crisis, they stated expressly that the EU does not want to conduct any negotiations on harmonising economic, trade and investment relations between Ukraine and the EU and Ukraine and Russia. Once President Yanukovych realised that he would incur economic losses for his country by violating his obligations under the CIS free trade zone, and Russia would have to protect itself by returning to the MFN arrangement as with any other WTO country, he simply decided to postpone for a while the signing of the Association Agreement. This was the pretext to stage the Maidan protests and a coup. European ministers showed up daily on Maidan, fuelling passions and stoking the hysteria that the extremists would later use to encourage bloodshed and then use this as a pretext to carry out a coup.
No one is going to investigate the bloodshed during the Maidan protests or the abundant evidence pointing to the then Kiev opposition members as the perpetrators. The West, in its attempt to realise what it views as its “victory” in the Cold War, was clearly upset to learn that the Russia of the 1990s is gone – the Russia that almost always said “yes” and never tried to defend its interests, believing that its alliance with the West would resolve almost all of its problems. This was an anomaly, something absolutely inconsistent with history, Russia’s place in the world or the need to ensure a fair and equitable dialogue on matters of legitimate concern to us. When we began to defend our legitimate rights in the international arena, someone thought, “Why? Everything is so clear now. What got into the Russians?” This is not good. This is basically a return to imperial thinking, which is particularly frustrating given our numerous initiatives aimed at finding a balance between our interests. After all, we do not impose our interests on anyone and are willing to make concessions, because we recognise the legitimate interests of our partners that are within international law. We are doing the same thing. We never advocate ideas that assert our interests in violation of international law. No, we don’t do that. If our partners were a bit more pragmatic and a bit more focused on maintaining a constructive dialogue with us rather than imposing their values and interests to the detriment of Russia’s interests and values, many difficulties in our relations could have been avoided.
We are ready for such a dialogue. President Putin has reiterated our readiness for a dialogue with Europe and the United States, but we will continue our efforts to expand our ties with Asia-Pacific region, Latin America and Africa that we started many years ago. There are many promising partners there, and we want to expand our cooperation with them in parallel with strengthening our partnership with our Western colleagues.